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Out of the Mud
Illinois' Good Roads Movement

Miriam C. Carlson
Heritage School, Rockford

While building railroads, the United States ignored its roads. In the late 1800s bicycle clubs toured the country roads and complained. Concern grew for the farmer hauling wagons over mud roads. In 1893 the U.S. government established an Office of Roads and a laboratory for testing asphalt in the Department of Agriculture.

Illinois was one of the first states to establish a road commission. On May 15, 1903, the General Assembly of Illinois passed "an Act to provide for the appointment of a Good Roads Commission, and to make an appropriation therefore." In 1905 they presented their study, Illinois Good Roads Commission, to the Illinois General Assembly. Around the state, 1,362 townships raised nearly four million dollars to maintain about 101,040 miles of wagon roads. The report concluded that, "Road building in Illinois is as yet in a primitive state, as compared with the older countries of the world, and, take it all in all, we have made but little progress since pioneer days." In 1905 the Good Roads Commission published its first study, "Crushed Stone Prepared at Penitentiary."

The Good Roads Commission of Illinois annually reported their test results and recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly. The commission developed instructions for building a good earth

As part of the campaign to improve Illinois highways, the Good Roads Commission
sponsored road-dragging contests. Pictured here is a winner of the "Good Roads Day " contest.


road and offered recommendations for drainage and construction of gravel, macadam, crushed rock, brick, cement, and bituminous asphalt roads. On January 1, 1907, the commission delivered its First Annual Report of the Illinois Highway Commission. The statistics produced by the Illinois Highway Commission were considered the best in the U. S.

In 1914 the first mile of rural cement highway in the United States was laid near Malta, Illinois, as part of the Lincoln Highway. Private money paid for this road. Cement companies donated cement for the publicity.

After years of waiting, the United States Congress passed the Federal Aid Bill of 1916. It brought money to the states. With the passage of federal and state legislation, the Good Roads Movement swept the United States. The Illinois State Superintendent of Public Instruction published a curriculum. The Good Roads Bulletin for Illinois Public Schools of 1916 contained student activities to counter misinformation about good roads. These included improvement of their farm entrances, making and dragging a road, conditions of a good earth road, and a survey of their road. The Fifth Report of the State Highway Department of Illinois proposed the "Good Roads Day." Farmers were already accustomed to improving roads on designated days. Now, women could cook meals and make it a community event. This became a social event and built neighborhood pride. The report even suggested that the United States president issue a proclamation for a national Good Roads Day. In Chicago the Association of Good Roads held a dinner and distributed song books about roads.

World War I affected the spread of roads. The economy had fallen in 1913 and 1914. There was a shortage of railroad cars, so the U.S. government used trucks to haul freight. The new trucks had no weight limit, breaking up the existing roads.

In 1917 the Illinois General Assembly passed a sixty-million-dollar road bill. The federal government matched the money the state spent on post roads. Governor Lowden cut two million dollars. He believed the sixty-million-dollar bond would be enough for road improvements.

Dirt roads in Illinois were slowly replaced with, hard pavement, a welcome improvement over the, rutted (and sometimes muddy) dirt roads.

The state mounted a major campaign to convince men to vote for the bond issue. A Rockford Daily Register Gazette column stated, "Good Roads Bond Issue Will Wipe Out State's Shame." Of Illinois' 96,000 miles of highway, only 800 were improved. Road building was to provide jobs to the returning soldiers, improve rural education, allow for the doctor to arrive soon on house calls, make possible truck freight lines, and provide beautiful auto trips. The campaign promised farmers benefits; "Good Roads" were to bring people back to the farms. They were also to be safer. Road money was to come from gas tax and license registration and cost the people no money. Auto and truck companies paid for a campaign ad in a Rockford paper.

On November 5, 1918, Illinois men voted to pass the bond issue for sixty million dollars. This created about fifty state roads in Illinois. To research road materials, Illinois highway officials built the two-mile-long Bates Experimental Road in 1920. It had sixty-three experimental sections.

Before 1917 Illinois was a state with mud wagon roads. They radiated from each grain elevator or train station. In 1923 Illinois passed a second bill expanding its state roads. These bills brought money to the counties to build hard roads. Slowly, state money reached the townships. For example, Owen Township in Winnebago County did not build a hard road until 1931. A result of the federal and state legislation was the decrease in importance of township governments and the increase in control of the federal and state governments.

The hard roads did not meet the promises of the Good Roads campaign. With better roads, the smaller stores disappeared. People drove farther to shop, and small towns started to disappear. The 1916 Federal Aid bill connected state economies, increasing Illinois' business.


Did "Good Roads" result in more farms, as the advocates claimed? No. The number of farms in Illinois steadily declined after 1920 from 237,000 farms to 124,000 by 1969. With more cars, better roads, and faster speeds there were more deaths. Total traffic deaths increased almost six times between 1915 and 1935. Traffic deaths per 100,000 population and per 10,000 vehicles also rose until 1935. Only "deaths per 100 million road miles driven" declined some. From 1935 to 1945, finally, total traffic deaths and death rates declined.

Did "Good Roads" encourage more people to buy cars and trucks? Yes. The number of automobiles in use increased rapidly in Illinois after 1917, rising by 167 percent in just five years. Perhaps this was why the Auto Dealers Association so strongly supported the 1917 law.[From S. E. Bradt, "Public Roads in Champaign Co," Champaign Co. Highway Improvement Association, VFM 19.35a in Regional History Center, DeKalb, Illinois; S. E. Bradt, "Pull Illinois Out of the Mud," Illinois Highway Improvement Association; "Cement Is Done at Malta," The DeKalb Daily Chronicle, Nov.13, 1914; "Cement Roads Soon Will Open, " The DeKalb Daily Chronicle, Sept. 19, 1914; "Crushed Stone Prepared at the Pen," Illinois Highways, Vol. 1 no.7 (Oct. 1914); 132, VFM 19.35b Regional History Center, DeKalb, Illinois; Fifth Report of the State Highway Department of Illinois, 1913-1916, Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Highway Commission, 1916; First Annual Report of the Illinois Highway Commission for the Year 1906 , Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Highway Commission, 1907; "Good Roads Bond Issue Will Wipe Out State's Shame," Rockford Daily Register-Gazette, Nov. 2, 1918; "Voters of Winnebago County Help Pull Illinois Out of the Mud," Rockford Daily Register-Gazette, Nov. 2, 1918.]


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